Hawkin' Dogs ~ Scenting and Pointing

by Jack Oar

Once upon a time, two rocket scientists got married, both of them were the children of rocket scientists. In due time, they began to have children of their own that they raised in a kennel in the backyard. When the children matured, they were taken to the rocket laboratory where they were found to be useless. Perhaps they should have been trained.

A bird dog is a scenting device (nose) that is transported by the legs that come with the unit. This nose is so acute that we cannot really conceive what a wonderful thing it is. While I am not prepared to give the scientific explanation of how the scenting abilities of a dog function, it is my understanding that they have the sensitivity to pick up the scent of a game bird when that scent represents merely a few ppm (parts per million) in the air. I have had my dog sprayed in the face by a skunk; after wiping his face in the grass for a minute or so (he did it by himself as no one in the party was willing to assist him), he went on to point a pheasant within 5 minutes.

The bodies of game birds give off a scent that diffuses in the air around them and drifts in the wind. As the scent drifts, it spreads; this is sometimes referred to as a "scent cone." Perhaps you can visualize it better if you were to picture yourself standing on a series of bridges. The first bridge crosses a pond; you spill a drop of dye into the water and watch it spread and slowly disappear. Next you stop on a bridge over a sluggish river; the dye disperses in the same way, but since the water is moving, the dye is spreading faster and moving away from its source. At any rate, I think that you are getting the idea. There are many variables that can effect the dog's ability to detect scent. The presence of humidity will enhance the dog's ability, and a strong wind will quickly dissipate scent. Topography may direct it over the pup's head and low or high pressure will have their effect too. Certainly there are other factors that have not been mentioned.

After a few months of field training, you will become familiar with your dog's body language when he is into scent; this is usually referred to as "getting birdy." It is essential that you take the time to learn to read these signs and develop confidence in your dog's abilities. Each specie of bird probably smells different, and your dog may experience some confusion when he is introduced to a new one. Your dog will have to accumulate experience to anticipate how close to approach the various species that you are interested in hunting. This will vary considerably with the terrain being worked also. Birds seem to be rather jumpy when a strong wind is blowing. Of all the game birds that I have had experience with, the sage grouse seems to have the strongest scent. At least my dogs have gotten birdy a long distance before the point. Under the best of scenting conditions, they routinely get birdy, turn into the wind, and follow the scent to its source up to one quarter of a mile away, going on point when within about 30 yards of the hidden grouse. The record for my dogs is held by my current first string English setter named Son of a Gun. Anyway Gun was running in front of the pickup in fresh snow. He is a big runner, mostly out of sight, and had on a radio collar, but his tracks appeared in the "two track" (road) ahead of us as we progressed up the "bench." The wind was coming across the trail. Now, Gun has a gait like no other dog that I have ever seen when he has encountered scent. He drops his head and tail and sneaks toward the source of the smell; you can see it in his tracks. On this occasion, his tracks turned 90 degrees into the wind and changed into that diagnostic sneak. I couldn't spot him from the road so we got out with the hawk and began to follow the tracks. Almost a mile later, we found him on point, put up the hawk, and had a good flight.

Because the scent of the bird is going downwind, the dog is usually worked into the wind. If the dog was to approach from the upwind side, the wind blowing the body scent away allows the dog to approach too closely, inadvertently flushing the bird. In order to return to the point of origin, you will many times have to go downwind at some point, so don't worry about it too much. He will find and point them when he traverses and gets downwind of the bird. Just cut the dog a little slack, and remember that it is a difficult job and he is doing the best that he knows how.

You cannot expect your pup to point the first time that he encounters game bird scent (but I've had several that did). Usually they have to associate the smell with the bird, and they are often so excited that they want to see it right now! Later they will, upon finding scent, stop to think about it, and wow he's pointing! This is the time to lavish praise on the dog. Praise him so much that he will try to please you again.

Most new bird dog owners are too concerned with their dog's pointing tendencies. In most cases, the dog will, if allowed to do so and exposed to enough birds, pick it up on their own. If they don't, they can easily be taught to point with a planted bird and a check cord.

The biggest problem is when the dog doesn't know to or want to look for birds. This is usually caused by the lack of field training. Almost any bird dog can be trained to point, but if you do not instill in him the love of the hunt, it will all be for naught. If you say that there are not any game birds in your area, my response is "Why are you training a hawk and dog for them? Perhaps you should be flying rabbits or crows or something else that you can find." If you must hunt upland game birds and they are low in numbers, then it is essential that your dog get the experience that he needs. In this way, he can provide you with the opportunity for superior flights in shorter time periods and closer to home than you can find in hours and hours and miles and miles of driving and eyeballing.

A well designed recall pen with well trained and conditioned birds in it can do a world of good for your dog's pointing. A recall pen will not train your dog to hunt, only to point. You must do the field training before he is herded into the recall birds! It is recommended that you stop by the recall pen and flush half of the well trained birds, then go somewhere else to run your pup for a half hour. This will allow him to burn off much excess energy, and he will more likely be ready to point when you return.

I have heard quite a few raves by people about the recalling abilities of chukar and gray partridge. I have had no experience with these, only with bob-white (which most authors of bird dog training books consider the best). In some future issue, I will write more on the use of the recall pen, until then you should consult a few of your dog training books for guidance.

One short note on the use of planted pigeons, some of my setters have not regarded them as appropriate birds to point. Perhaps I had done something to dissuade the dog that I do not remember.


Hans Gabler of Sheridan, Wyoming writes to ask if I know anything about a bitch losing her scenting ability during her heat. He also writes that he has spayed his bitch to see if it will solve the problem.

I have noticed that bitches get to acting a little distracted sometimes during the heat. But I have not noticed a loss of scenting ability. Perhaps some of you readers can help me with your experiences along these lines. Perhaps Hans will let us know how the spaying of his bitch has affected her olfactory abilities. I have noticed that dogs tend to lose their scenting ability with age, however, for a time they can make up for the loss by the use of the skills and knowledge earlier acquired.

Next time we will discuss range.

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